My wife and I saw the new Batman film this weekend. We’re not blockbuster fans but occasionally enjoy a bit of escapism. An escape from reality, of course, is what the moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado were looking forward to last Friday midnight before a gunman suddenly began firing into the audience. The reported initial reaction of some of the filmgoers was chillingly revealing – they thought the shots were part of the show. That hope immediately vanished, but it served as a mad metaphor for a society that increasingly has trouble distinguishing where fantasy ends and real life begins. For people in Aurora last week, escapism meant fleeing a movie, not attending one.
America, shocked as it was by the carnage, didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic to search for causes or lessons, let alone metaphors. So the ensuing discussions, in the mainstream media, at least, were mild compared to those that followed disasters from Hurricane Katrina onward. Inevitably, some bigmouths found their way to microphones: One of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s allies blamed the shooting on gun control laws and Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert thought he’d located the massacre’s origin in attacks on Judeo Christian values. But for the most part no one was interested in finger-pointing. Even Rush Limbaugh seemed to be going through the motions and sounded more droll than warped by suggesting a connection between Batman’s nemesis, Bane, and Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s financial alma mater.
But our unwillingness to analyze and debate the tragedy is less the result of political worldliness than an inability to truly experience outrage – we’re just too fatigued from the endless braying and chest-pounding by pundits and political candidates over each and every development in the 24-hour news cycle. This is true even on the matter of gun control, a logical topic to raise in the wake of such egregious gun violence. Perhaps many of us presume the NRA is too powerful to challenge and that to fight it might risk having more gun laws thrown out by the Supreme Court. Besides, the alleged shooter apparently purchased his weapons’ ammunition all quite legally on the Internet, the way many of us buy blenders or laptops. Time to move on with our summers.
I bring up gun control because it’s also one of those elephants in a room increasingly crowded with taboo subjects. I could be wrong, but it feels as though last year there was more national soul-searching in the wake of the Arizona shootings in which Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was gravely wounded. Have we become inured to these violent outbursts? Do we feel off the hook now that a lone psycho is allegedly to blame? Or are we afraid that merely talking about an issue like gun control (it could also be climate change, gender equality or the exporting of American jobs) will somehow reopen a nasty front of the culture wars? This unwillingness to confront problems, to even name them, along with our moral lethargy, political apathy and social paranoia, is usually associated more with a nation occupied by a foreign army than with a healthy democracy.
Watching some of the many action scenes in The Dark Knight Rises made it impossible not to think about the rampage in the Aurora multiplex. I don’t blame the people who, for a split second, thought the automatic gunfire there was fake. (Anyone who’s seen a theater spectacle, such as The Who’s Tommy, knows how real a possibility this is.) The Dark Knight Rises also reminded me that the narratives of the classic super-hero comics are always filled with spectacular acts of urban sabotage and mass hostage-taking. Too many similar real-life events in America have followed those old plotlines, beginning with the sniper Charles Whitman in 1966 and running through the 1976 Chowchilla school bus highjacking, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine in 1999 – and now, Aurora.
The melding of our escapist fantasies with real-life tragedies can be found in the very description of last week’s atrocity — the “Batman Massacre” both describes a comic book and an actual tragedy. Is it surprising that a New York Times Web report on weekend box office grosses misspelled Dark Knight Rising in its headline (the title appeared as Dark Night Rising)? I do know that despite sitting through two hours and 44 minutes of the latest Batman movie, I can’t repeat a line of dialogue from the film, nor do I have more than a cursory recollection of its storyline. But isn’t that the signature of all escapism? We experience its vicarious danger, then forget all about it.